Dealing with different types of money is one of the travelers’ troubles; knowing local prices and payment methods is essential for assuring a pleasant trip. After writing a journal of Bolivia for almost every week of the year, it is time to dedicate an entry in one of them to the Bolivian Boliviano.
Actually the situation in Bolivia is much better than one would expect from such a country; the fact Bolivia is a producer of energy – though a low-profile one – has created a rather stable currency. There is very little chance the traveler would meet devaluation related problems. Yet, troubles can appear anywhere, and awareness to local issues can significantly smooth the path of the traveler through this mountainous bastion.
The biggest surprise I had after entering the country for the first time was that it is a coin-oriented economy. Most of the items one would purchase while walking around cost less than the lowest denomination note. Coins exist in denominations of 0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1, 2 and 5 Bolivianos. The last is worth almost a dollar; the first two are seldom seen. The 2 Bolivianos coin appears in two sizes; the smaller is very similar to the 1 Boliviano coin, thus attention should be paid to its segmented edges. As of the beginning of 2011 two variants of each coin can be found: the old ones have engraved "Republica the Bolivia," while the new ones state "Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia." The country changed name after the new constitution was approved in 2010.
Notes appear in 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 Bolivianos. Invariably, getting change here is difficult; thus at least for small purchases it is recommended to pay with the smallest notes. That means requesting them while getting money at the bank. By law banks must supply them, and the clerks never object to that. This point is important… don’t use the ATMs, but make money transfers at the inner counters. In the last year, two times the ATM I was using acknowledged the transaction but issued no money. Luckily I was in La Paz and able to approach directly the national financial authority responsible for international transactions. I was told there it happens roughly twenty times a day (!). Eventually I was refunded, but on the second case there were problems and delays. The way to avoid that is approaching the desk at any bank and asking to withdraw money as a credit card transaction; it is called an "adelanto." It takes longer and you pay a small fee, but it solves a serious problem. Moreover, it assures getting small denomination bills, which are essential for a smooth experience.
Many travelers move around with foreign money and exchange it on the go. Bolivia is very open in this, with the American dollar being widely accepted. Even coffee shops may accept them; those that do have a sign stating the used exchange rate. However, exchanging dollars into Bolivianos is wiser, as invariably the exchange rate at specialized shops is better. Beyond exchange shops and banks, many independent traders exchange money on the street. They should be avoided at all costs; in the best case, the place is watched from nearby by the abundant thieves plaguing the city.
This is the moment to mention another local peculiarity. Most notes are brand new. Old notes are often checked and re-checked before being accepted; forged money abounds here, luckily fake notes are easy to spot. The new notes are of high quality with plenty of security measures that makes checking them out a breeze; there is no chance to accept a fake note if you look at it carefully. However, those bringing old dollar notes from abroad may find them rejected upon the least problem: an ink mark, a tiny missing corner, or just for having been folded too many times. This is very similar to what I have reported on Cambodia and Myanmar. Arguing on that is useless; if that happens try a few shops, or wait for the next country. If a Boliviano note in your possession gets too ugly to be accepted, do not despair, banks exchange them for new ones provided at least one of the note’s ID numbers and one of the signatures are still visible.